The Enduring Appeal of Lo-Fi Horror

I spit on your resolution

Archive 81, a new limited series on Netflix, has all kinds of beloved horror tropes: ghosts, demons, cults, smirking Southern-ish gray-haired white men. But its most spine-chilling device is a series of handheld camcorder tapes taken in the story’s early 1990s. In this, Archive 81 joins a rich vein of recent-ish horror efforts that have amped up their fear factor with lo-fi video technology.

Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.

The shock of the old

The wool-capped pioneer of this trend was arguably 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, a “film” comprised entirely of the purportedly “found footage” left behind by three college students who disappeared in the woods trying to capture a legendary witch on video. The makers of Blair Witch started a website and pretended it was all real, in a multimedia hoax reminiscent of Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast. And, since the Internet was not yet the 24/7 Spoiler Machine it is today, this worked for a while.

But beyond this “you guys, I swear this is true!” technique–a horror trope reaching back to campfire ghost stories and Edgar Allan Poe – was the shock of Blair Witch’s style. It begins with our three protagonists filming themselves goofing around as they pack up for their one night jaunt in the woods. But over time, the self-filming gets as shaky as their sense of direction, descends into raw screamfests, and flips into and out of nighttime black-and-white sequences more terrifying for what they leave out. Its most iconic moment is lead filmmaker Heather, recording a possible last testimonial through quivering tears.

Interestingly, around that time, in 1998, we also saw Ringu, the Japanese horror flick shortly thereafter remade with Naomi Watts as The Ring. They made all the Ring movies awith conventional cinematic methods, but the beating horrific heart in each is a VHS tape playing a brief scratchy, BxW Bunuel-esque montage of creepy scenes intercut with screeching static. Its method of murder–copying the videotape and passing it alon –is a chilling riff on that ubiquitous way pre-Internet cultural products used to “go viral.”

The Paranormal Activity franchise, launched in the early 2000s, falls somewhere between Blair and Ring. Their action is entirely filmed by the participant/victims, but the story unfolds in a more leisurely narrative. They alternate between slightly boring, sometimes annoying, home movies, and “Bigfoot Hunters”-style black-and-white “caught on tape” vague flashes of horror.

ARG

Flash forward (or should I say, hit “FF” and watch horizontal hold lines cascade up the screen over the squeak of VCR tape rollers) to the mid-2010s, when a new spin on this type of retro horror emerged… ironically, on the Internet. ARGs–or “alternate reality games” – are deliberately cryptic pieces of video, released in series, which patch together low-res video, blurry graphics and pieces of old movies and bits of cable-dial arcana. They weave a deliberately mysterious story, or lore, which subReddits and other online communities eagerly scan for clues and trade theories about.

The granddaddy ARG, Local 58, pretends to be short dispatches from a local public-access station with anodyne daily features like weather alerts and city council meetings. Except that these are taken over by repeated, jarring, sometimes ear-piercing interruptions with pseudo-“official”-looking messages advocating things like moon-worship and mass suicide.

Another popular ARG is The Walten Files, a demented cousin of the video game franchise Five Nights at Freddy’s. Stylistically, The Walten Files is a pastiche of poor-quality, allegedly 1970s-level VHS footage, unsettling jump scare images, allusions to murders and unexplained disappearances, and hauntingly horrible animatronics.

Taping Over

And that brings us back to Archive 81, which interrupts its 2022 cinematic fluidity with everything from shoulder-held 1990s camcorder, to grayscale security cam footage, to the very birth of visual capture: shaky 1920s silent-film celluloid.

What exactly about the lo-fi aesthetic is so frightening? Perhaps seeing footage that looks to be in bad condition and reads as “decades old” – especially in black-and-white — subconsciously gets us thinking we’re seeing people who are dead – and yet still moving. Lo-fi horror tends to lean into ancient-ness as deeply as possible, from the primeval imagery of Blair Witch’s forest “stick men” and stone cairns; to The Ring’s girl in a well; to Local 58’s use of crude 8-bit fonts and Walten Files’ of severely yellowing photos.

And maybe there’s just something about VHS. For GenZers, and younger, the simultaneous rawness and uncanny “shininess” of VHS grain (especially compared with their supra-Kubrickian iPhone 12 cameras) is jarring. And for Xers like me, and older, there’s also the memory of how VHS tapes were so often copied and recopied over, you’d sometimes get “ghosts” of previous material, and sometimes bits and pieces that didn’t get fully taped over. VHS is a palimpsest medium whose near-infinite over-tapeability means that nothing on it feels permanent–fertile soil for the unease of horror.

Broadly speaking, these techniques – self-taping, unpredictable editing, sudden shifts in register – take a film out of the “control” of a cinematographer and insert us into a more chaotic realm.  In part they share a page with the “shaky handheld” trend that has largely taken over non-horror films, TV shows, and even sitcoms. It just makes what we’re seeing viscerally feel more “natural,” or at very least reminds us of the artifice.

And over these three decades when pop culture, news, advertising, and period-jumping have themselves merged into an endless, haphazardly edited pastiche, maybe it’s that lo-fi horror simply reminds us of the horror of what our eyeballs take in everyday.

Only, you know, with more gristly eyeballs.

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Rob Kutner

Rob Kutner has written for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and Conan, and is also the author of Apocalypse How: Turn the End Times into the Best of Times, and the graphic novel Shrinkage.

2 thoughts on “The Enduring Appeal of Lo-Fi Horror

  • February 14, 2022 at 12:31 pm
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    Watched Blair Witch again and loved it. (But the less said about the sequels, the better.) This article brings the magic back.

    Reply
  • February 15, 2022 at 9:51 pm
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    Great article. I would add that grainy VHS troubles our visual brain. Over 50% of the surface of the brain is devoted to visual processing, so when it’s impeded, which it already is in 2D and within a square or rectangle, this is added to by degraded VHS quality. When we are experiencing a sense of danger and really need our tunnel-vision acuity on high, but all we have are these low-resolution, morphing images that we cannot direct the angles of, we are feeling more danger.
    Add to that the morphing nature of things and distortion of sound, it’s uncanny valley territory.

    I feel like whenever we are experiencing a technology in its prime, we are looking past the tech to the stories and ideas, but when the tech is passé, the medium makes itself awkwardly known, more noticeable than its content.
    An example I’d give of this is that people almost never dream of their phones. We are on them all day long, but we don’t really see them. We see into them. In 30 years time, kids will look at our phones and the resolution and content and be thrilled and alarmed by them.

    Reply

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